SALEM — Around 130,000 students in Oregon may be able to return to classrooms soon, state health officials said Friday.
The estimate came as Oregon Governor Kate Brown announced new, less restrictive metrics for reopening Oregon's schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, state health officials announced a record high daily COVID-19 case count — the third such record set in the last seven days.
"I think we can all agree that this has been much harder than any of us anticipated," Brown said at the conference. "One thing that is abundantly clear: COVID is here to stay, and it's here to stay for the foreseeable future."
The new metrics likely mean that Coos County schools will be able to reopen in-person learning to more grades — though both local and state officials noted that those changes will take some time, as districts receive and review new public health data to compare to the requirements.
"We will not be making any immediate changes to what we are doing but will develop a plan moving forward that follows the new guidance," Coos Bay Public Schools Superintendent Bryan Trendell wrote in a text to The World Friday. "We will work in coordination with our regional districts, the local health authority, our staff, and our community to develop the best plan for our area."
Some of the major changes to the metrics include an expansion in the kindergarten through third grade exception for in-person instruction and the imposition of a transition period to allow schools time to prepare for moves to or from in-person instruction.
Under the new metrics, counties with case rates below 50 cases per 100,000 in population over a two-week period and test positivity rates below 5% will be allowed to reopen in-person schools. (Small counties, including Curry County, must also have less than 30 cases in the past two weeks.)
Counties with between 50 and 100 cases per 100,000 in population and 5-8% test positivity will be allowed to transition elementary schools to in-person instruction. (Small counties can have between 30 and 45 cases in the last two weeks under that model).
Any counties with more than 200 cases per 100,000 in population in the last two weeks or greater than 10% test positivity (or small counties with over 60 cases in two weeks) will be required to implement distance learning according to the new guidance.
"We believe these metrics represent a cautious approach, using a simpler and clearer set of measures that are rooted in the latest scientific evidence," said Tom Jeanne, an OHA public health officer.
The new metrics — which eliminate a requirement for statewide positivity rates to remain low for any schools to open — mean the focus of reopening decisions is now more on local public health data, and are more in line with how other states have reopened schools. Still, the majority of students in Oregon will be taking classes online even under the new metrics, state leaders said.
The Oregon Department of Education changed the metrics with the "North Star" goal of getting students back in classrooms, ODE Director Colt Gill said Friday.
"We need to remember what our students are missing when they're not at school," Gill said, noting that many students receive meals and better instruction when they can go to in-person classes. "For many of our students, in-person instruction works better. It's about relationships."
Officials said they based the new metrics on the fact that the recent increase in cases — the state saw 600 new cases reported on Friday alone — is largely attributable to group gatherings, not schools.
"What's really clear is that schools are not super-spreader events," Brown said, adding that screening and masking procedures at schools have been generally effective in decreasing transmission.
Still, since reopening metrics are based on county case rates, officials said individuals need to keep making safe choices in order to keep schools open in-person, including wearing masks and avoiding group events. New state models suggests that Oregon could see a 70% increase in daily infections by mid-November unless individuals take action to slow the spread, Jeanne said.
"We're asking every Oregonian to prioritize our kids right now, and really think about their own behaviors in relation to COVID-19," Gill said. "They've been away for far too long."